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Tope Folarin

In her short fiction and her novels, Adichie has established the two dominant strands of accessible contemporary African fiction. One is a drama that takes place somewhere in Africa, often involving conflict of the household or national variety. The other is a tale about immigrants journeying to the United States. As it happens, Adichie’s immigrant stories often hew quite closely to a tradition established by accessible writers like Amy Tan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a few others.

One version of the accessible immigrant story goes something like this: someone (usually a man) leaves his country in order to establish himself in the United States, usually a coastal city, usually New York. He lives in deplorable conditions and saves every penny he earns until he is able to send for his wife (and children, if they have them). Eventually they arrive. Oftentimes there is a tear-filled reunion. The newly reunited family enjoys the United States together for a few days, weeks, months, but then they have to reckon with their many inevitable problems. Money problems. Immigration problems. They might enlist someone to help with their immigration problems. This someone usually isn’t reliable. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — is going to college. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — has a job that is precarious because of their immigration status, and their ability to ...

In her short fiction and her novels, Adichie has established the two dominant strands of accessible contemporary African fiction. One is a drama that takes place somewhere in Africa, often involving conflict of the household or national variety. The other is a tale about immigrants journeying to the United States. As it happens, Adichie’s immigrant stories often hew quite closely to a tradition established by accessible writers like Amy Tan, Junot Díaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a few others.

One version of the accessible immigrant story goes something like this: someone (usually a man) leaves his country in order to establish himself in the United States, usually a coastal city, usually New York. He lives in deplorable conditions and saves every penny he earns until he is able to send for his wife (and children, if they have them). Eventually they arrive. Oftentimes there is a tear-filled reunion. The newly reunited family enjoys the United States together for a few days, weeks, months, but then they have to reckon with their many inevitable problems. Money problems. Immigration problems. They might enlist someone to help with their immigration problems. This someone usually isn’t reliable. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — is going to college. Either the husband or wife — perhaps both — has a job that is precarious because of their immigration status, and their ability to keep the job has less to do with their skill and more to do with the whims of a boss who can be temperamental and unreliable. As time passes, the United States seems less like a land of opportunity and more like a place where impossible dreams remain impossible. They keep up appearances for their family back home — they send back pictures and money and nice anecdotes — but slowly they resign themselves to the idea that they have been deceived somehow, that they have unwittingly fallen victim to a conspiracy of exaggeration about their new country.

And so it is with Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue, the current African immigrant novel of the moment, which garnered a seven-figure advance last year. It just might be the most accessible novel I’ve ever read.

At the beginning of this novel, Jende and Neni Jonga have been living in New York with their son for about a year and a half. Jende has been in the country the longest; he left Cameroon for the United States 18 months earlier than his wife and child in order to prepare for their eventual arrival. We meet Jende just as he is about to interviewed by Clark Edwards, an executive at the soon-to-be-defunct Lehman Brothers, to become Clark’s chauffeur. And so, at the very beginning of this novel, one accessible narrative is entwined with another — the story of the 2008 financial crisis, which itself is just another chapter in the long-running American narrative about those who benefit and those who suffer from the effects of American greed.

Jende gets the job. His visa has expired so he is in the United States illegally, but for a time it seems that he might be able to secure an asylum visa. His wife, who is a student at a local college, is hopeful that she will graduate soon and become a pharmacist. She earnestly imagines a future in which her family is financially secure and fully integrated into American life.

The relationship between the Jongas and the Edwardses forms the spine of the novel. Their lives intersect in the manner that privileged white lives and downtrodden black lives often intersect in these kinds of stories. Jende drives Clark around New York and, in so doing, nurtures a relationship with his boss, who seems kind in an offhanded, uninterested way. Over time the Jongas and the Edwardses develop closer bonds: the Edwards children take a liking to Jende and Neni — they even visit the Jonga’s dingy Harlem apartment in an especially affecting scene — and Neni begins to work for Cindy, Clark’s wife.

This strand of the narrative, the relationship between Neni and Cindy, is the most interesting departure from a plot that otherwise unfurls as expected. Cindy — unhappy with her marriage and her oldest son’s decision to move abroad — consistently drinks to excess and pops pills. One night, Neni discovers Cindy in a compromising position; afterward, Cindy shares a painful secret with her. Neni comforts Cindy and for the briefest moment they are equals. They are women who have suffered and lost, who are trying to keep themselves and their families whole. Later, Cindy enlists Jende to spy on her husband, who she suspects is cheating on her. Jende’s decision — whether to comply or not — sets into motion the narrative engine that will lead to the inevitable climax of this novel, the inevitable climax of most contemporary African immigrant tales. That moment when things fall apart.

Even within this familiar context, Mbue does an admirable job of developing characters whose lives seem so heartbreakingly real that the pages of this book often seem like something of a confinement. When you close the book, you will hear their pain. You might feel them calling for you. And anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will recognize the contours of Neni’s and Jonga’s relationship. Theirs is a love that sustains impossible dreams. We learn from them, as we have from our own lives, that sometimes love and impossible dreams cannot inhabit the same space. Either the love or the dream must fade. Flashes of evocative language occasionally spark from the page (at one point, Neni packs an old Louis Vuitton bag that Cindy has given her like “roasted peanuts in a liquor bottle” an image that will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in West Africa). Mbue also writes dialogue quite well; indeed, many of the best scenes in this novel are simply extended exchanges of dialogue between various characters. Mbue could have a future as a playwright.

As for this novel? Well, in all likelihood, you have read it before.

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